Interview // A Film as Work of Art: Amei Wallach on her documentary about Louise Bourgeois

Interview by Sarah Gretsch // Jun. 15, 2013

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine, directed by Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach, is a journey into the work and psyche of an icon of modern art. As Bourgeois’ works are nostalgic, so too is the film; time vacillates from recalling memories, to biographical moments, to opening shows, to clips of interviews. A scene begins with a long look inside an installation or a panorama of a statue, letting the works speak for Louise and her life. Void of a definitive chronology or theme, it is the works that tell the story––a perfect depiction of an artist who made no distinction between art and life.

The Film was presented last week in Berlin by the Berlin Film Society. Berlin Art Link sat down with Amei Wallach, co-director of the film, New York art critic and historian to discuss the making of the film and her relationship with Louise.

SARAH GRETSCH: When a film is made about an artist, there must be a certain pressure or particular care taken on the directors’ part to meld those artistic forms––those of the artist and the film. Would you say there existed such a consciousness on your and Cajori’s part?

AMEI WALLACH: When we started, we thought that we would build the film around Louise Bourgeois being the choice of the Venice Biennale. So we shot a lot of footage in Venice. It went on so long because we couldn’t raise the money to actually process [the film footage]. Actually, It would have been unfortunate if we had actually done the film we meant to do, because then it would have been a record, more of a documentary of a significant moment in Louise’s career. But instead it was an experience.

The Review in Art Forum said: “A work of art in itself”, which is my favorite review. That is really what we were trying to do. A film is not an encyclopedia. It is not wholly accurate about every art historical thing that ever happened. For one thing, you are interviewing people and memory is a very slippery thing. We were very conscious of trying to make a work of art, about an artist. I am very aware that as a writer about art, your job is to translate one medium to another. But it is often inadequate. Whereas film is actually a visual medium, so you really have a leg up. We wanted to be insightful; we wanted to find a way into her and into her art. Which meant that you didn’t use everything she said, but you found a way to juxtapose words, images, scenes, and objects.

I am curious about this “unparalleled access” aspect of the film. What makes this documentary so unique is surely for this reason. How did all of this begin?

As a journalist, I had been writing about Louise from time to time. But at the same time I was doing television. I was doing what is now called the PBS News Hour. And [Louise] wanted to be on television. She is an actress, if there ever was one. So I said, “You know, you would make a great film.” And she responded, “Sure.” I did not know how to make a film, but the Metropolitan Museum had a program of art and film, in which they were experimenting with ways to make films about artists. They put me in touch with Marion Cajori who had made a beautiful film about Joan Mitchell, and who had filmed [Louise’s] work but was not getting access to [her]. So we started working together. Since we filmed together all those years, I learned about filmmaking from Marion.

She was filming in film, which is a huge production. You have to rent everything, you have to have crews… and we would go to Louise’s studio and she would be ready for us, she would have props or she would be doing this little performance for us. But sometimes she refused to do anything. And we would lose the whole day. As the years went on like this, we still did not have the money to process any of this. Marion and I would just visit her from time to time, every 8 months or so, with Marion’s Hi8 camera and sit across the table from her. And that was when the real intimacy began. We had amazing access at that point.

With such a long time frame (1993-2007) your relationship with Louise must have developed significantly. I would assume Louise was a difficult person to gain the trust of, yet this seems to be achieved. How hard was it to get what seems to be a very private person to open up and how did this relationship develop?

One of the times I went to see her, the day before, Michael Kimmelman had been there, who is an art critic for the New York Times, and she had gotten very hostile with him. So when I was with her that day, she was feeling very bad about that. She was not frightened of me from the very beginning. Also a big part of it was because I was not, in her world, too powerful. I was just a girl. That really helped.

She also plays games with people. She could really play games with Marion and me, because Marion had children and I did not. So she spent a lot of time talking about how a woman who did not have children was not really a woman and things like that. But I never had it so much that I got angry or hurt by her, I didn’t have anything at stake.

Another very important part of this access is Jerry Gorovoy. He found her in 1978, when her work wasn’t out there; it was really all still in the basement. And he––for the rest of her life––helped her organize, helped her interface with the world. He would be the go-between; he would arrange the interviews and set her up that morning so that she knew we were coming. He made it all easier.

In a few scenes Louise is heard in the background shouting that she is not an actress, that you misquote her. I am curious how you balanced the project of making an informative documentary film with its subject as a constant conscious and judging presence. How much did you direct or control?

Oh, you can’t control Louise! There are whole scenes, with the ones at the table, Marion with the Hi8 camera, when she would not let us film her face. So there are a lot of shots with hands. In fact, Ken used that. He made the hands a motif. You do not direct Louise. You can only use the questions to maybe lead her in certain directions…

So did you think especially about where the questions might lead?

You could try, but she often came in with her own idea of what she wanted this session to be about, and you did not realize it until halfway through and you would just let it go because if that is where she wants to go, you are going to get someplace good.

I used as much as I could, such as her saying in the background, “don’t do this”, because it reveals her. She is so raw and so present. It is as if she doesn’t have a layer of skin. I don’t know very many people who are that forthright, with the pain at the surface.

There are many difficult moments in the film. Painful memories surface and complex subject matters are addressed. Louise reveals such stories as that of the mistress, the twisting fabrics as inspiration for her spirals, the painful memory with the tangerine and its reconciliation through a dream, as well as the significance of the temperament of spiders.

How were you able to weave all the truths her artworks reveal into an insightful but still impartial portrait––a kind of explanation for an artist and her body of work––while also remaining sensitive to the vulnerability of your subject?

Well I do not think we cared about how she would be affected by this work, because frankly, as a filmmaker, what I have discovered is people never object to the things you think they are going to object to. It is never: “Oh I’ve revealed too much,” because they have. She knows that is who she is, and she reveals it in the work. So that was not an issue. But every time you moved a scene next to another one, it revealed something new. It was like shuffling a deck of cards. I knew that the climax of the film was the tangerine scene. So bit-by-bit these revelations unraveled and built to the point where you’re ready for that scene.

I’d like to touch a bit on this aspect of editing. I understand that Marion Cajori died before the film came out. How was this process managed, especially after her death?

First I must say, this is a different film than what Marion Cajori would have made. Hers would have been much more poetic than this. Marion was a master at filming the art work, from every angle, especially with lighting it.

Marion loves a very slow pace, being in the moment, and taking her time. I get very impatient. I want the shot to end; I want to get to what’s happening. With Marion, this dream-like quality is very important. It is brilliant. But I cannot do that. In the end, it was not Marion’s cut. It was Ken’s and my cut. But I think the way the work is filmed is so much hers.

After Marion died we had all these different media, and we had to find a way to make them work together. We had hundreds and hundreds of hours of film. The editor, Ken Kobland, has a specific way of working, which is to collage. He doesn’t like to start with a structure. I would give him a text and suggest images. He would make it filmic. We put the whole film together like that and were left with a rough cut. It was really intuitive how we collaged these scenes with what she says, layering the words with the art.

Also the more you take out of a film, the better it is. Sometimes the scenes you love the best (they are now under extras on the DVD, so it wasn’t entirely lost) do not work. For instance, all the times Louise would put up her arm in front of her face and say to me: “Oh, you’re so wrong! ” or “don’t do this to me”. We cut these scenes together, but they did not work in the film. They were too intrusive. Although, I do love making the process of the filmmaking be part of the story. It makes you aware that this is a film––this is not real life––and it is very revealing.

Last question, which I must ask. What was Louise’s reaction to the film?

She never saw it. Jerry never showed it to her. We kept showing it to Jerry all along the way, but she was in her 80s and she was very cranky. All of us feared that when she saw it, she was not going to let us show it. And so she saw parts of it. He showed her the parts which he thought she could see. I do not know what they were, but she never saw it.


Sarah Gretsch is living in Germany since January 2012. Originally from the United States, where she pursued her Bachelor’s in Art history, she is now continuing her studies in Berlin.

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